What is the earliest printed use in English, including relevant context, of 'white woman' or 'white women'? As nearly as I have been able to discover, the term is first found in print in these contexts:

  • 'white woman' appeared first in John of Trevisa's translation of Angelicus Bartholomaeus's De proprietatibus rerum Dates are uncertain, but OED dates the translation to sometime before 1398. The composition date of the original work in Latin was probably sometime before 1240. As published in 1582, the context clearly ascribes the color of people's skin to climate and geographical place of birth.

    And a black woman hath much better milke, and more nourishing then a white woman.

  • 'white women' seems to have first appeared in English in a 1595 publication, The problemes of Aristotle with other philosophers and phisitions. The work is attributed to three authors, Aristotle among them. Alexander of Aphrodisias is also attributed authorship. The third author, Marc Antoniao Zimara, died sometime after 1529. The name of the translator is not available.

    Question. Why is the milke of browne women better, then of white women?
    Because that browne women are hotter then others, and because the heate doth purge the milke sufficiently, and so the milke is the better.

My research queried only the orthographic forms shown in the question; information on other, earlier forms would be welcome.

The history of these terms might provide more exact and complete knowledge of the linguistic underpinnings of systemic racism, which in turn might better inform efforts to undermine and curtail that racism. The earliest known uses of the terms in English provide a starting point wherefrom the history of use in changing contexts can be traced and examined.

After having the original question closed as "too broad", I split it into three questions, White Noises, Person or People, Man or Men, Woman or Women, and posted them separately. This is one of those.

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    Sorry but the system doesn't permit me to upvote twice. Someone actually downvoted this? Crazy.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Mar 2, 2019 at 5:57
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    @Mari-LouA, all three of the questions got an immediate downvote. Which just confirms my certain knowledge that the voting is crazy. Upvotes, for example; they cost nothing. I upvote whenever I can think of an excuse.
    – JEL
    Commented Mar 2, 2019 at 6:00
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    +1 with minor quibble: I initially found "white noises" in the title of the three questions confusing, as I couldn't see where the power spectrum of a noise signal was being asked about, and it took a while to realise it's a play on words. Doh. I'm not sure the title is the best place for a pun, clever though it is. Perhaps something more prosaic like Oldest reference to... white woman or women? You still have your link to The White Noises in the body of your question. :-) Commented Mar 2, 2019 at 22:21
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    I've been periodically poking at these questions without success. The big issues are twofold: that racist classification has seldom been consistent, such that "black" and "white" and other terms mean different things at different times; that "people," "men," and "women" are only one collocation used to refer to a group of individuals (also, premodern spelling). This is a case where the individual lexical terms tend to lead to inconclusive dead ends, whereas more global considerations of early race (like Geraldine Heng's The Invention of Race in the European Middle Ages) may bear more fruit. Commented Mar 7, 2019 at 17:36
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    @TaliesinMerlin, thanks for looking at them. Probably my statement of the reason for asking makes my ambition sound grander than it is: for these answers, I only want the earliest appearances of the phrases, without regard for their semantics.
    – JEL
    Commented Mar 7, 2019 at 17:56

1 Answer 1


Early instances of 'white woman'

The earliest instances of "white [or whyte] woman" in English go back very far indeed. In a search of Early English Books Online, the earliest publication date reported in search results was "1490?"—for this instance from "The spyces of exercyse," in In this tretyse that is cleped Gouernayle of helthe what is to be sayd wyth crystis helpe of some thynges that longen to bodily helthe, which focuses on the relative merits of a "broun woman" and a "white woman" in winter and in summer:

Yet ther ben other maners of exercyse for yonge men that ben lusty as to renne to wrastle to lepe to caste the stone / and so of other playes also tempred fleshly companyng wyth a yōg broun woman is goode in wynter / and wyth a yonge white woman ys goode in somer is also goode & helpyng in gouernyng of helthe to body but not to soule / excepte to hem then that mowen haue it by goddes lawes so ne∣theles that thee be so moche tym bytwene that he fele hym selse eased & lyghtened in his body and that he ete the better & slepe the better

Differing heat in white and brown women is also argued in a 1537(?) translation of a French text, The history of kyng Boccus:

After which aman loke shal / What woman he shal dele with al / In wynter whan the ayre is colde / And his keelth yeldes manyfolde / A yong woman and broune also / Profytes than man vnto / For broune woman is of hote onde / And of hote guttes fonde / And her hete hetys man also / And great profyt doys hym to / In somer whan the ayre is hote / And heteth both drye and wote / Than is a yong whyte woman / Best vnto profyt of man / For she is colde of kynde to fele / And man of great hete may she kele ...

It is not clear, however, whether brown and white here mean "dark-skinned" and "light-skinned" or "relatively dark" and "relatively light" or "brunette" and "blonde."

Thomas Hill, The contemplation of mankinde contayning a singuler discourse after the art of phisiognomie (1571) echoes the two sources cited in JEL's original question—but here the discussion is preceded by a comment about redheads:

The redde colour of the heares of the head in∣tensed, is a note of craftie wiles and deceytes, of much yre, and of fransinesse, when as the same declareth the aboundance of choller.

Then comes this paragraph:

The browne Chestnut colour, doth declare vprightnesse, and the loue of iustice: and all report, especially Nuncius naturae, in the seuenth booke of the nature of beastes, and in the first Chapi∣ter, of the condition of a Nurse, where he vttereth, that of those, the better and healthfuller sort are they, which be browne in colour, than the whyte woman, and haue a helthfuller milke: the selfe same affirmeth Auicen. 4. de animalibus

So is the brown chestnut color a skin color or a hair color? And on what feature is the whiteness of the white woman determined?

A metaphorical discussion of "the white woman" and "the red man" appears in George Ripley, The compound of alchymy (1471(?)/1591) in the context of alchemy:

Consider first the latitude of this precious Stone, / Beginning in the first side noted in the West, / Where the red man & the white woman be made one, / Spoused with the spirite of life to liue in rest, / Earth and water equally proportionate, that is best, / And one of the earth is good, and of the spirit three, / Which twelue to fowre also of the earth may bee.

Three of the wife, and one of the man thou take, / And the lesse of the spirit in this dispousation, / The rather thy Calcination for certain shalt thou make: / Then forth into the North proceed by obscuration / Of the red man and his white wife, called Eclipsation, / Loosing them and altring them betwixt winter & vere, / Into water turning earth, darke and nothing cleare.

The discussion here is of the way to obtain the philosopher's stone through a series of chemical processes isolating and purifying the virtuous material after first combining various gross original substances. Ripley died in 1490 (approximately), and various versions of this text date the original to 1471 or 1477. The marriage of personified white and red substances thus appears in a pre-Columbian European context.

The earliest EEBO instance I could find where "white woman" appears in an unmistakably racial context is in the 1594 M. Camillo Camili translation of Iohn Huarte, Examen de ingenios [The examination of men's wits] (by 1588), where the author uses interracial offspring to call into question Aristotle's explanation of human generation:

Moreouer, if a womans seed were of that maner which Aristotle mentioneth, it could be no proper aliment: for to attain the last qualities of actual nutriment, a totall seed is necessarie, whereby it may be nourished. Wherthrough, if the same come not to be concocted & semblable, it cannot performe this point: for womans seed wanteth the instruments and places, as are the stomacke, the liuer, and the cods, where it may be concocted. Therefore nature prouided, that in the engendring of a creature, two seedes should concurre; which being mingled, the mightier should make the forming and the other serue for nourishment. And this is seen euidently so to be: for if a blackamore beget a white woman with child, & a white man a negro woman, of both these vnions, wil be borne a creature, partaking of either qualitie.

The earliest dictionary definition related to "blackamore" that I've been able to find is this one from Thomas Dyche & William Pardon, A New General English Dictionary, third edition (1740):

BLACKS or BLACK MOORS (S.) many nations of people under or near the equinoctial line, who are of a black colour, among which those who have short curled hair are called Negroes.

Here, at least, black moor refers exclusively to a person who lives in the tropics and whose skin is black. I think it is likely that the word had a similar meaning in English a century and a half earlier when Camili used it.

Early instances of 'white women'

Early English Books Online reports an instance of "whyte women" from The grete herball whiche geueth parfyt knowlege and vnderstandyng of all maner of herbes (1526), but I have not been able to find a accessible copy of this book online. A Hathi Trust search for "whyte women" doesn't confirm the existence of "whyte women" or "white women" in The grete herball.

The next instance that EEBO searches produce is to The problemes of Aristotle with other philosophers and phisitions (1595)—the second quotation cited in JEL's original question. Then comes this instance from Iohn Huighen van Linschoten, his discours of voyages into ye Easte & West Indies Deuided into foure bookes (1598):

The Prouince of Bracamoros, is about sixtie miles from Quito: trauailing along the hill about fiue and fortie miles further, lyeth the Prouince of Chichapoyas, or Cachapoas, wherein the Spaniardes haue a towne called Frontiera, on Leuanto, where the countrey is verie fruitfull of all kinde of Spices, and of rich Golde mynes: Leuanto by reason of the scituation of the place, is verie strong, and well kept, as be∣ing almost compassed about with a deepe vallie, wherein for the most part there runneth a certaine riuer, whereby the towne of Frontier builded vppon Leuanto, is not easie to bee woonne, if the bridges be once broken downe. This prouince was built with houses, and peopled with inhabitants of the Spanish nation, by Alonzo de Aluarado, in the yeare of our Lord 1536. Therin are faire and white women, fairer then in any other parte of Peru, also very gracious and courteous, and withall, verie well apparrelled.

The "white women" in this case are women of Spanish origin, living (and in some instances born) in Peru. The situation here seems especially relevant to "white women" as a descriptive term for women belonging to a particular racial or pseudo-racial category, since the women mentioned here appear in a part of the world where relatively few women of European ancestry lived in the late 1500s.

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    I couldn't quite tell if you were aware; in alchemy, 'white woman' = mercury = the female principle of the 'parent' metals; 'red man' = sulphur = the male principle of the parent metals. As per OED. The identities of the substances so named are uncertain.
    – JEL
    Commented Mar 9, 2019 at 17:06

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